Poll indicates more college students leaving churches

NE student Amelinda Jaramillo, above, actively attended church for most of her childhood until the increasing demands of school, work and life took precedence. Below, Jeff Repass of the First Baptist Church of Colleyville is trying to decrease the void between God and students. Photos by Casey Holder/The Collegian
NE student Amelinda Jaramillo, above, actively attended church for most of her childhood until the increasing demands of school, work and life took precedence. Below, Jeff Repass of the First Baptist Church of Colleyville is trying to decrease the void between God and students. Photos by Casey Holder/The Collegian
Jeff Repass of the First Baptist Church of Colleyville is trying to decrease the void between God and students. Photos by Casey Holder/The Collegian

By Sandy Hill/reporter

NE student Amelinda Jaramillo was an active member of her church growing up, attending church camps and conferences. But her attendance began to slow down once in high school.

“I haven’t found a church yet that I can relate to,” she said. “Along with having a job, school, boyfriend, friends and sleep, I can’t seem to find the time or have the energy to get up on Sundays. They are now my relaxation days.”

An unscientific poll taken of 100 TCC students revealed that 84 of them attended church before college. Of those, 54 stopped attending once they entered college.

A study from LifeWay Research, a part of LifeWay Christian Resources, one of the world’s largest providers of Christian products and services, reveals that as many as 66 percent of young adults stop attending church regularly between the ages of 18 and 22. Some youth leaders’ predictions are even higher, putting the estimate at 65 to 94 percent.

Cited as the top reasons for dropping out, most young adults said they simply wanted a break from church. Others stated moving away to college caused them to stop attending. The third and fourth reasons given were work responsibilities and simply being too busy.

NE student Hayley McGregor, whose faith has always been an important part of her life, said it saddens her that students are dropping out at such a high rate.

NE student Amelinda Jaramillo, above, actively attended church for most of her childhood until the increasing demands of school, work and life took precedence.
NE student Amelinda Jaramillo, above, actively attended church for most of her childhood until the increasing demands of school, work and life took precedence.

“Trusting in the Lord gives me the strength I need to deal with the stress that typically comes with the college experience,” she said.

NE student Brian Priestner, who grew up in church, leads a busy life leaving him little time for Sunday services.

“I don’t have time because my schedule is full,” he said. “If I’m not at work, I’m at school.”

Meaningful relationships are the “glue that keep people in church,” Brad Waggoner of LifeWay said. Teenagers have a set group of friends in high school and church. Those connections are lost when they go away to college.

NE student Heather Hall misses those connections and said it has affected her attendance.

“When I lived at home, I had my parents to go with and my friends,” she said. “In college, most of my friends were different religions. I was nervous about going by myself.”

The college years are a time for students to explore life and start making decisions for themselves. Research shows when teenagers simply attend church with the family as a weekly routine, they are more likely to drop out later.

“I was made to go to church every Sunday,” said NE student Bethany Phillips, who no longer attends. “No one likes religion forced down their throat.”

The LifeWay studies showed when a child’s belief system is intact from a young age and their beliefs are their own, not just what their parents have forced on them, they are less likely to leave it behind although they may put it on the backburner as they gain more personal freedom and begin to question everything.

“I believe that as everyone gets older, they should evaluate what they believe and truly know why they do things a certain way,” McGregor said. “You shouldn’t just do things because you’ve always done them or because your parents do it.”

A Christian Post study showed that students who never attended college had the highest rate of decline in church attendance. Students who earned at least a bachelor’s degree had the lowest rate of decline.

Researchers also noted that universities are no longer viewed as being hostile toward religion.

“Many people assume college is Public Enemy No. 1 for religion,” said Mark Regnerus, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers. “But we found young adults who don’t experience college are far more likely to turn away from religion.”

Youth Transition Network, a non-profit coalition of national and regional ministries dedicated to decreasing the loss of youth from the church, interviewed 150 college students about why they walked away from the church and found the two main culprits were stress and loneliness.

Another issue for students was feeling unprepared, not only spiritually but socially, academically and financially, as well. The stress this created along with the extra demands on their time kept them from getting involved in a church or college ministry.

The LifeWay study showed that 30 percent of young adults who continued attending church saw the future benefits and relevance for it in their lives and were committed to the purpose of the church.

NE student Nathan Ramos, a guitar player who leads worship at his church, said his faith helps him deal with everyday life.

“It helps me stay grounded, and it’s a place where I can receive guidance,” he said.

The research showed of those who do drop out, about two-thirds eventually return, mostly because of encouragement from others.

Fox News revealed the results of a study in Sociological Quarterly last year showing students who attend religious services weekly have a 0.144 higher GPA than those who never attend services. The research showed churches provide psychological benefits as well as social networks to students.

The commonly quoted Bible verse, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” hits home with James Branch, NE reading instructor and author of The Vacant Pews.

Branch grew up in a home where church attendance was always emphasized. Now, he is passing that foundation on to his own children, hoping they will be prepared for those challenging years.

“Once I got to college, I started to kind of push myself away from going on a regular basis, even though it was a Christian college,” he said. “Once my junior and senior year came about, I started back going routinely.

“I got back to the basics, so to speak. There were things that needed to be addressed in terms of my spirituality. Once you grow up in a church and you get that foundation, it never leaves you.”

Branch believes if people have some kind of faith or spirituality to keep them motivated, they won’t give up as easily.

“I tell my students all the time that you’ve got to have some type of determination,” he said. “You don’t want to swim halfway across the lake and then look up and say, ‘It’s too far,’ and then swim all the way back. You’ve just done the work that you needed to do.”

John Martin, NW director of learning resources, was active in Campus Crusade for Christ as a college student and went on to earn a master’s degree from a Baptist seminary.

With school, work and family responsibilities, students are simply too busy these days, he said. But he also believes there is a much deeper reason lying at the heart of the issue.

“Many college students begin to find that church is no longer relevant,” he said. “At a time when their lives are being filled with new knowledge and ideas, the church appears stuck in old ways of thinking and unable to offer relevant insights into living in the modern world.

“While the church satisfied our childlike understanding of the world, it does not do a very good job in helping us to understand what it means to be a fully human adult and a citizen in this modern and complex world.”

College-age students who show up at First Baptist Church in Colleyville on Sunday mornings won’t find a class to attend with their peers.

After having trouble getting a core group together on Sunday mornings, a time when many college students are catching up on sleep, Jeff Repass, the church college ministry associate, said the college and young adult group meets on Sunday evenings at a time that works with the people able to come.

Repass sees the disconnect in young adults and admits there seems to be a gap when it comes to churches connecting to college-age students.

“I think there are probably some cases where churches don’t do a good enough job answering questions or dilemmas that young people may face,” he said. “They may have been presented with some information, but no one’s ever presented any answers to any serious challenges in their minds.

“I think that’s something we need to be thinking about: how to equip and prepare our young people and be ready to help them think through a lot of the questions they have.”

For some, the difficulty comes in being able to navigate their lives in terms of relationships, time and their priorities.

“They’re learning and making the transition from having that structured life, where their parents and teachers are largely deciding their schedule and activities, to moving into adulthood and having to make all these decisions for themselves,” Repass said.

The idea that tradition itself would keep students involved in the Christian faith is no longer a given. By ages 18-22, attending church has become a matter of choice, and teens can be opinionated, said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.

“Gone are the days in which young adults attend because they are ‘supposed to,’” McConnell said. “Young adults whose faith truly became integrated into their life as teens are much more likely to stay in church. If church did not prove its value during their teen years, young adults won’t want to attend — and won’t attend.”